Egypt was a quick stop for me – 2 weeks, but I covered a lot of ground. I went from South to North, from Dessert to Sea, and even fit in some mountainous climbing. I was able to see various hilltribes, Nubians and Bedouins. Even though it was only 2 weeks, I was able to get a feel for the culture there, test my limits a bit and extract many cultural learnings. There were a few things that really made Egypt distinct and different to me. Sure, there are the Pyramids – that certainly sets Egypt apart; however, I tend to notice and fixate on other things, small things, personal interactions, observations, but they are impactful to me.
It’s A Man’s World:
As I traveled throughout Egypt I abided by the Muslim custom of females covering their shoulders and knees. I didn’t go as far as covering my head, but I felt like I was at a middle ground with the custom and went out walking in the streets confidently. One of the first things that struck me is that there aren’t many women out at all. Sure, there were tons of men sitting at a coffee shop/café, in fact, there were only men – not a single woman sitting and relaxing having a coffee with girlfriends. This seemed to make me stand out even more (as if my Lilly white skin wasn’t enough). I can’t say that I ever got comfortable with this man-only world. Sure, I had fantasized about being the only women amongst good-looking men at times…but in Egypt this was a fantasy gone wrong! Even though you try very hard to not call attention to yourself, you can’t walk down the street of any Egyptian town (Cairo is the exception) without being hassled by the men. I talked to our guide, Mohammad, about it and it really comes down to their view of Western women in Muslim countries. Most, not all, Muslim men see Western women as sexually lose and uninhibited. It was as if I was wearing a Bud Light string bikini, stilettos, sucking a lollipop walking by a construction site in NYC…now do you get the picture? If you happened to be walking alone, then you had a target on you – you could expect to get rude sexual comments, people coming up to you trying to ‘help you’, and sometimes men blatantly came up and grabbed you by the arm or tried to grope you. Sometimes they’d make you feel like you had to pay them off to leave you alone. Because of this, I learned two things – don’t walk alone, but if you do – wear your hard-ass bitch attitude on every part of your body. You had to become Teflon. Strangely enough, you do get used to this environment, you don’t accept it, but you get used to it. After a while, I hardly noticed that I was the only woman at the café, or that I had 3 teenage boys following me trying to get my attention by saying rude things, or a guy came up to me and offered his services to personally show me around the city – I just kept walking, knowing in my head that I was strong, a very strong Western woman.
This country was loaded…with ammunition. Egypt’s security presence was like nothing I had experienced before, and for good reason. It was probably the most dangerous country I had been to at this point in my travels. The Egyptian government put a lot of time, effort, money, and manpower into protecting tourists. Convoys were flanked by a few jeeps carrying about 6 men carrying automatic weapons, ready to jump out and deal with whatever threat there was. There were little ‘check-point’ huts everywhere – at the temples, in the middle of the desert, in cities – men sitting (sometimes sleeping) in the huts with their AK47 slung loosely around them, smoking a cigarette. There were plain clothes security too…or maybe they were just some guy with a gun for all I know. When you visited a temple or any historic/touristic site it was mandatory that you went through a metal detector and they would search your bags. There was a metal detector before you walked inside the Pyramid, one before you hiked up Mt. Sinai, one at the hotel we stayed at in Cairo and Sinai, one to get on the ferry, one to go to the nightclub on the beach, one to go in the public toilet…and the list goes on. This sounds very comforting…however practically every time our group went through the metal detector it would go off, but we were never stopped – they just told us to keep walking. Many times they would only search our tour leader’s bag, and let the rest of us walk through. I guess being a tourist meant that you weren’t a threat…not very comforting. My favorite gun experience came in Mt. Sinai. We were leaving by minibus from Sinai to Cairo, an 8 hour drive. There were no secure convoys that ‘policed’ this route, so we were on our own…at least I thought so. As we were all eating breakfast at our hotel I noticed this bulky guy in a nice brown suit and aviator sunglasses on…trying to looking like secret service. As he got up to go get coffee, I noticed that he was carrying some sort of automatic weapon on a waist belt in his pants! This was not a pistol…it was large. This may have been disturbing and confusing to see, but after 2 weeks in Egypt – it didn’t really phase me too much. As we boarded our mini bus I noticed that they guy in the suit was sitting in our bus…now I was intrigued. I asked our leader, Mohammad, who the CIA guy was and why he was in our private bus carrying an automatic weapon. Mohammad explained that he was my personal security. Since we didn’t have a convoy to travel with AND there were Americans traveling in the bus (me and one other woman) it was required that we have a security escort. My own personal bodyguard…it made me want to break into some Whitney Houston song! Apparently there were special security rules for Americans, Japanese, and Israelis…go figure controversy pays off sometimes. As we traveled the 8 hours to Cairo – my personal security guard tried to hit on me…(see above…It’s a Man’s World)…which of course didn’t surprise me, but at least I did end up in Cairo safely. I decided to play up the flirting and see if I could get a picture of him when I arrived at Cairo as I would probably never have another bodyguard again…only in Egypt!
House of Cards:
As a kid you may have made card houses…they looked so beautiful, so sturdy, but when you got up close and accidentally bumped the table the slightest bit, it would all come tumbling down. While traveling through Egypt, I didn’t stay at high end hotels, instead, I stayed at middle of the line 3 star places – not super budget, but not expensive. After a week or so, I realized that every time I went in my hotel room, it looked nice, clean, normal – then after being in it for 1 hour, you realized that you were living in a card house and that it was really crumbling down around you! The room maybe had 6 lights/lamps in it – but only 2 of them had bulbs that worked. Sure, you had a western toilet, but only 50% of the time it would actually flush. You had an air conditioner, but it only went as cool as 85 degrees (which sadly enough was still an improvement!). It had a shower, but only cold water dripped out of it. You trained yourself into understanding that no matter how nice it looked upon first site, something essential wasn’t going to be working. (kind of the way I view men I date!) One of my favorite places was the hotel where the front door didn’t even close. The door way had been warped from the weather – and the door no longer closed into the door jam. Instead, we just put the chain on it and hoped for the best that night. One of my favorite sites was the restroom that had this lovely calking job in the photograph above. Honestly – it looked like the calk exploded or that a 2 yr. old did the job. Then again…at least water flowed through the facet…even if it was only cold water.
Sometimes I get lucky. I traveled through out Egypt (and Morocco) and never once got sick…lucky. All of the people I traveled with had some type of GI sickness at some point, but not me…lucky. Photo: Toilet and buday – all in one, and a bit scary! I’d like to say that my gut held out because I was a savvy traveler – I watched what I ate, I always ‘Purelled’ my hands, I didn’t have ice in my drinks, etc…but that’s not the case. I don’t travel like I live in a plastic bubble…instead, I just travel. The only rule I consistently apply is to not drink the tap water…that’s suicide. While in Egypt I ate the fresh vegetables and fruit, I ordered salads, I had ice in my cola, I used public toilets and washed my hands in the water…and I was lucky. I’d like to believe that my gut is well-trained in 3rd world travel, that it has been exposed to bacteria and can fight it off, that it is made of Teflon, yet luck always plays a part. Egypt is most certainly a time bomb for the western stomach. Flies land on your food constantly, the glasses and utensils are never really clean, and the refrigeration is lax. But you have to eat something…so you take the risk. One of the positive sides to traveling in developing countries is that you stop biting your fingernails…as the thought of chewing on your nails with all of the dirt underneath them is not too appetizing!
Ignorance is Bliss:
I have transcended being a tough New Yorker. I have now become a global citizen…one that is adept at making my way around a market and ignoring every man, woman and child trying to sell me something. The key to this is to ignore. Egypt was the pushiest place that I had been in my travels. As you walked through a market, the men and boys would come out in a wave in front of you. You would see them all emerge from their store or stoop and you would hear them all trying to talk to you, selling you something. Photo: Me and a mini-camel in the souks! The noise would raise around you as more and more started to stand up and talk to you – it was like surfing a surreal wave of salesmen. It was a game of sorts – I would ignore them by pretending as if I was in a little bubble, never EVER making eye contact with any of them, I would just keep on walking. They would all try to come up with a clever way to get me to look. They would try to guess where I was from…”Aussie? Canada? Kiwi? “ Then they would start to pull out little funny one-liners from each of those countries to get you to crack a smile and indicate where you were from. They all had the Aussie accent down well. I found it strange that they seldom guessed American…but was thankful too! They would go as far as grabbing your arm and trying to walk you in the store, they would block your way so that you couldn’t get past them, but you just kept on living in your bubble and ignoring them. Kids pulling on your pant leg..ignore. I became so good at ignoring that I scared myself somedays…I was worried that maybe I had become so good at it that I wouldn’t be able to relate to people normally ever again! The Egyptians were professionals though, they would try to lure you into their store by saying – everything is 5 pounds ($1 in US), then when you came into the store to get what they had for 5 pounds…they would say…oh no, British pounds ($10 US). They would tell you that you were beautiful, they would tell you that they would not hassle you, they would beg you to buy…but you just ignored. They would sometimes get frustrated with you and say “What, you don’t like Egyptians”…but I knew this ploy…they just wanted you to be the ‘nice’ Westerner and turn around to defend that fact that you did like Egyptians…then they had you…you had made eye contact and you were hooked into shopping. When someone said to me in a hurt manner…”What, you don’t like Eygptian men?” I said “No, I don’t like Egyptian men”…that pretty much made them go away. I’m not sure what happened to the nice mid-westerner inside me, I guess I lost that somewhere in Asia. When men would come up to you and stand in front of you and forcefully ask “Where you from?”, I would just as forcefully ask “Where are YOU from?” They would answer “Egypt” and I would say “Nice to meet you” and just keep on walking.
The only problem with my ignore game plan was when you actually were looking to buy something…then you had to engage these touts. You had to go along with their games to some extent, sometimes you could even have fun with it, but eventually you would just have to say – I’m going to give you 10 pounds and that’s a fair price, you’d place the 10 in their hands and walk away…normally they would let you do that. I would try to seek out the quiet owners, the ones that didn’t hassle you, but they weren’t easy to find. I still felt like it was important to reward the people that weren’t so aggressive. Regardless, the markets were always an enjoyable experience whether you were ignoring or engaging…you’d always emerge from them with a new story to tell.
A Sprinkle a Day Keeps the Dust Away:
Egypt is dry…parched…hot…it turns your boogers brown thanks to all of the dust in the air. There is no humidity and the sun just shines 12 hours a day nonstop, the dirt is always blowing around you. You come in from outside with fine layer of dust encased on your body and belongings. However, the locals try to combat the dust…I don’t think they are winning the battle, but they continue to try. You walk around a town or a souk and notice that there are locals constantly taking water bottles and spraying them out on the ground in front of their establishments. At first I thought it was just another ploy to get your attention…I was a little worried that they were going to douse me with water in hopes of spontaneously having a wet t-shirt contest. However, I learned that they do this to keep the dust down. There was even a whole art to it – how they threw the water so that they didn’t hit people – a clever, precise flick of the wrist…it was talent. You would see little kids begging their father to let them throw the water…an apprentice of sorts. I don’t know if it really made much of a difference – I still had a layer of dust on me every day – but it was enjoyable to watch them fight the battle.
Photo: My roommate and new friend, Rosaline and I! She was a wonderful travel partner!
During my stay in Egypt (and Morocco) I was able to pick up a few key phrases in Arabic…my favorite being the phrase for “Let’s go” – Yella! As with most countries, I was sad to leave Egypt – it’s culture was rich, and extremely different from anything I had encountered in my travels prior. I wasn’t too sad to leave it’s male-oriented culture, but I was happy to witness it and experience it. It made me respect the women there even more. Egypt made me tough – mentally tough, stomach tough, people tough, physically tough – tougher than NYC ever made me. I can only imagine that it is good preparation for India…my next stop!
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.